Serengeti of the Sea

Dolphin Ride-Along | Beebower Productions, Inc.

Everyone held his or her breath as the giant creature surfaced within arms reach.  The whale’s enormous size dwarfed our boat.  That caused a few of us to imagine how easily this whole trip could go sideways.

But we forgot all about the danger when the whale suddenly exhaled through its blowhole.  A fine, stenchy mist hit us.  We’d just experienced whale breath up close and personal!

Whale Tail | Beebower Productions, Inc.As suddenly as it had appeared, the whale gracefully slipped below the water, glided under the boat and emerged on the other side.   Crisis averted.

That humpback whale encounter started my obsession with the wildlife of Monterey Bay in California.  The crew at Sanctuary Cruises in Moss Landing fed my wildlife addiction.

I took my first trip with the Sanctuary crew during a cold, windy spring day.  I hoped to see a whale.  But I soon discovered humpback whales were just the tip of the iceberg in this oasis.

The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary covers the waters of Marin County near San Francisco to the town of Cambria, California, a total of 276 miles.  That dwarfs Yellowstone National Park.  It encompasses beaches, tide pools, kelp forests, steep canyons and underwater mountains.

In fact, the Monterey Submarine Canyon found just off shore of Moss Landing is a natural wonder, almost equal in depth to the Grand Canyon.  A mindboggling 11,800 feet at its deepest point, the canyon creates conditions perfect conditions for a wide variety of creatures. 

A process called upwelling drives the nutrient rich waters out of the deep to the surface, creating a feeding bonanza.  Tiny plankton, schools of sardines, squid and other creatures provide plentiful food for predators like giant blue whales, sea lions and even birds.  The sanctuary boasts 34 marine species, 525 species of fish and over 180 types of shore and sea birds.  The Bay easily earns its nickname of the “Serengeti of the Sea”.

Cruising the Sanctuary

Captain Mike and his marine biologist partner Doris picked the perfect spot for their business.  Because of that giant canyon just off shore, the waters outside of Moss Landing team with wildlife.  Much to my surprise the wildlife often heads into the busy harbor to hang out.

Sea lions, sea otters and harbor seals gracefully glided around the vessels.   Some even climbed aboard tethered boats and took over the docks, much to the dismay of the humans.  Cormorants, pelicans and sea gulls perched on dock pilings or soared deftly around boats.   I never expected to see such an abundance of wildlife around an active marina.  But the animals didn’t seem to mind the people at all.

After viewing the amazing array of creatures in the harbor we motored out to the bay.  While Doris explained about the unique world under our boat, Captain Mike headed to an area where humpbacks had been spotted.

I, meanwhile, discovered my sea legs.  Sort of.  OK.  Fine.  I had no sea legs. Spring on Monterey Bay brought choppy water.  For a landlubber such as myself, balancing the camera gear and remaining upright provided a challenge.  But thanks to a tip from the captain, I braced myself against the cabin’s outer walls.  That gave me stability to photograph without going overboard or looking like an idiot.

Sea Otter Showdown | Beebower Productions, Inc.We hadn’t gone very far when we came across a dramatic showdown between a sea otter munching a crab and a very persistent sea gull that wanted the crab.  After several aggressive dive-bombing attempts by the bird, the sea otter disappeared underwater, crab and all, leaving the frustrated bird behind.

Then the real show began.

Let me stop and say that Captain Mike and Doris know their stuff.  It’s obvious that they love their work.  That’s why I love Sanctuary Cruises.   Mike regularly gets tips from other boaters who see wildlife around the bay, so there’s always something to photograph.  Plus he goes out of his way to make sure photographers get the best possible shooting situations. I wasn’t too surprised to learn Mike also is a photographer.  So he knows what to look for.

Because Doris understands the animals, she excells at predicting what they will do next.  That allows the photographers to anticipate the action and increases our odds of capturing a great shot.

Three Lunge Feeders | Beebower Productions, inc.And now back to the story.   After tooling further out in the bay, hunting humpback whales popped up around our boat.  Not just one or two but five or six!  They rocketed straight up out of the water lunge feeding, a practice of rounding up and chasing their prey to the surface with their mouths wide open while scooping up a meal.  Lunge feeding events often involve fringe feeders like the birds swarming the area.  It was an amazing display of ocean prowess by a huge but graceful animal.

We stayed with these giant animals for about 40 minutes before heading back to the harbor.  Like a fish on the line, my first experience on Monterey Bay hooked me.  Over the next year I’d see common and Rissos dolphins, blue whales, harbor seals, elephant seals and albatrosses in addition to the humpbacks.  Each trip gave me new things to photograph even if that included the slightly stinky whale breath.

If You Go

  • Sanctuary trips are a bargain.  They charge $55 for adults and $45 for kids on the 3 to 3 ½ hour trip.  If your kids get antsy quickly, they also offer a 2-hour trip.
  • Ghost Ship | Beebower Productions, Inc.Dress warmly and in layers, even in the summer.  Fog often rolls into the bay making it chilly.  In addition to dressing in layers, I always took a pair of thin gloves so I could manipulate the camera without freezing.
  • Wear as much waterproof clothing as you can.  Large waves, sea spray and fog can soak your clothing by the end of a three-hour trip.
  • Take suntan lotion and a hat.  Even on an overcast day glare off water can cause sunburn.  Polarized sunglasses are also helpful.
  • If you decide to wear a hat, make sure you have a way to secure it.  The wind swept more than one person’s hat into the ocean on my trips.
  • Rent the anti-nausea bracelet.  It really works.  NASA developed the bracelet for astronauts but it works great for seasickness.  The $7 rental fee is totally worth it.  If you choose not to rent the bracelet, take seasickness medication before boarding the boat.  The bay can be very rough at certain times of the year.
  • Sea Lions on a Buoy | Beebower Productions, Inc.Eat a light breakfast.  When you’re bobbing like a cork on the ocean, your stomach will thank you.  Enough said.
  • You can bring food aboard or get some from the snack bar on the boat.  I never either did because I didn’t want to chance seasickness.
  • Wear flat, rubber-soled shoes.  The deck is often wet and slippery. 
  • Pare down your gear.  There’s not much room for bulky bags plus you don’t want to worry about a bag going overboard.  Leave the tripod and monopod at home.  I’d suggest a camera with a long lens you can handhold, say a 100-400mm zoom, and another body with a medium zoom in case animals show up close to the boat.  Stuff extra batteries, camera cards and a lens cleaning cloth in your pockets.